Marouane Fellaini’s likely exit another headache for Jose Mourinho

Few figures at Manchester United have been more divisive the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era than Marouane Fellaini. The much-maligned Belgian joined in a deadline day deal as the only addition to the then reigning champions in David Moyes’ first and only summer in charge. To many supporters, his arrival and the club’s subsequent decline, the depths of which United are only now climbing out of, are inextricably linked.

Fellaini’s awkward and cumbersome style of play was a rather apt parallel to the club as it teetered and tottered under Moyes and his successor Louis van Gaal. Yet, through all the ups and downs, Fellaini has persisted.

After Moyes’ unceremonious departure it was a foregone conclusion Van Gaal, with his Dutch background and all the stylistic elements it entailed, would cut United’s losses. Again, Fellaini persevered.

He emerged as a key player for the Dutchman. During the few memorable achievements of van Gaal’s tenure, Fellaini was a constant, including United’s run up and eventual triumph in the 2016 FA Cup final.

However, Van Gaal’s disappointing second season saw United finish outside the Champions League positions resulting in his dismissal with Jose Mourinho chosen as his replacement. It was again widely believed Fellaini would be culled from the club once and for all. Again, everybody was wrong.

Mourinho made sure to get in touch with Fellaini soon after he was presented as manager to inform him he was a part of his plans. And again Fellaini forced himself into the side despite the protestations from many club supporters and media pundits.

What is it about Fellaini that has seen him survive such a tumultuous period of time for United’s playing squad? How has a player who has rarely received plaudits from the terraces been able to endure and impress manager after manager with such drastically different stylistic and tactical approaches? How has he managed to force himself into the team at the expense of perceived superior options such as Ander Herrera, Morgan Schneiderlin, and Bastian Schweinsteiger (remember him?) among others?

For one Fellaini is, if nothing else, a tactically disciplined player who will consistently carry out the manager’s instructions. This may seem like a rather basic and mundane expectation, but one many players routinely fail to adhere to.

In addition to his discipline, Fellaini’s work rate is unquestionable. He will always give you everything he has when he steps foot on the pitch and that type of warrior mentality will play well with the manager, especially one like Mourinho.

The Belgian also provides a robust physical presence. Though not a very fluid or eye-catching athlete, his height, and incredible chest control make him very useful as a direct outlet to bypass teams that high press, a skill which van Gaal and Mourinho have used more than once effectively.

None of that is to suggest Fellaini should ever be a nailed on starting XI player. He has too many limitations in that role. He’s not effective at picking the ball up off the back four, turning and driving forward. He is not incisive with his passing. In short, he stymies United’s build-up play, particularly against the top sides.

What he brings is best and most effective as a squad option used in specific tactical situations off the bench. It seems that Fellaini will not be such an option for long though.

The club and Fellaini’s representatives have been locked in contract negotiations for the better part of a year and have yet to come to an agreement. With the Belgian out of contract at season’s end, his time at Old Trafford appears to be winding down.

Many United supporters will no doubt be glad to finally see the back of him. Mourinho will not share that sentiment in losing a player whose absence he claimed made him feel weak.

The Portuguese manager has already proclaimed a need to add more quality in central midfield in addition to other areas. Losing a squad player with Fellaini’s abilities isn’t something he’ll relish.

While many would dismiss his utility even as a tactical option, the proof has been there throughout his United career, of his value in that capacity. He has changed many matches off the bench. While many United players have gone missing or seemed eager to pass responsibility to others when forced to step up, Fellaini, for better or worse, has never shirked his duties.

Due to a lack of quality, injuries, and depth, he’s often been thrust into prominent starting roles. For a club desperate to reclaim its place atop the English game, his limitations when handed the responsibilities of a starting midfielder are hard to bear. Perhaps the most tragic part of Fellaini’s time at the club is that the squad has never been strong enough to keep him in the proper role consistently.

Mourinho has spent plenty of money to rebuild a squad in need of an overhaul. He’ll now have to spend even more to replace a player he would prefer to keep. That’s a headache he would rather have done without.

Written by Ashwin Ramnath

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